Wolfram Alpha gets me thinking with data once again

by Mr. Sheehy

Technology-wise the things that get me most excited are the ones where I can’t quite see the purpose. I can see the potential for usefulness but the potential is wide enough that I can’t quite imagine its practical use. Thus, today I am thrilled with Stephen Wolfram’s new search tool called Alpha. He dubs it the computational knowledge engine, and it apparently uses data gleaned from elsewhere and computes it for you according to your query.

He offers suggested querries for you to try, but I decided to begin by asking about the temperature in my hometown the day I was born. I didn’t know how to phrase it so it could make sense, so I just asked it: “What temperature in _________ on _____________?” A tad later I was looking at a line graph detailing the temperature each hour of the day and a note affirming that the high had been 80 degrees and it hit that at 3:00pm.


Next I asked it what the temperature was in Washington DC the week Sputnik launched–maybe the politicians’ fear raised the temp a bit? My first query confused it and it asked me if I meant Sputnik, so I clicked on the option it offered and found out immediately, without leaving the site, what day Sputnik launched  (I didn’t have to go away from my search engine to find the answer, which is why I don’t know that I’d call this a search engine and why I think Wolfram is justified in calling this something strange–“computational knowledge engine” is definitely strange). I then re-entered my phrase: “temperature in washington dc the week of october 4, 1957” and it delievered the results:

As you can see, my theory about rising temperatures when Sputnik launched are bogus, as Wednesday the 2nd was the hottest day of the week, at 73 degrees.

Another cool part of Alpha is the specific nature of the url. For example, I searched for a more relevant and controversial number after playing with Sputnik’s influence: the average temperature in the USA since, say, the Civil War. The resulting data did not chart back to the Civil War, but it did head back to the 1930s. Overall, it looked pretty steady, but if you’d like to see for yourself, I can simply direct you there with a link, and you can see what I saw without any trouble.

Now I am a humanities guy by trade, but I openly loved mathematics in high school and when I entered college I wished that math could have been less theoretical and more fun, like trig and calculus had been. Perhaps that is why I think this is so awesome–it computes whatever I want, but I don’t have to have a reason to compute it besides my own curiosity. For the sake of curiosity, I am rooting for Stephen Wolfram on this one, because I want to be able to produce any data I can conceive of. Average number of deaths per battle in the Civil War. Average number of home runs hit during the 1990s compared to the 1980s. Number of political commercials aired during the last 30 elections. Adjusted average SAT scores over the last 50 years. Just type it in to a computer and the next thing I know, there it is.

Who knows how we’ll verify the accuracy of all that data, but that is not my concern today. Today I’m just excited about the foggy possibilities, however relevant they might not be.

Thanks for reading.